In 1949, when Lawrence “Yogi” Berra was just three seasons into his career in professional sports—before he had racked up all the MVPs and the All-Star selections and the Hall of Fame induction that made for a baseball cap brimming with feathers—LIFE profiled the relative newcomer.
Specifically, the 24-year-old Berra, who died on Tuesday at 90, would hit just about anything that came his way. Though he was formidable as a catcher, it was his batting that induced anxiety in pitchers. “All season long he has been approaching the ball as if he intended to beat it to death,” wrote LIFE’s Ernest Havemann. “Opposing pitchers have no idea what to do about him, and are inclined to get highly nervous every time he comes up to bat.”
His teammate, third baseman Bobby Brown, described Berra’s approach to batting as follows: “Yogi has the biggest strike zone in the U.S. It goes from his ankles to his nose, and from his breastbone as far out as he can reach.” And Brown wasn’t exaggerating, as Havemann continued: “Yogi can use his bat like a golfer blasting the ball out of a sand trap, like a traffic cop reaching toward the far line of cars with a nightstick, or like a man with a swatter straining for a mosquito on the ceiling.”
Unconventional as it may have been, Berra’s skill led to a decorated career with the Yankees, followed by a brief stint playing for the Mets and coaching gigs with the Mets, Yankees and Astros. Off the field, he enjoyed a long marriage to his wife Carmen, with whom LIFE photographed him when the two were expecting the first of their two sons. “The moral seems to be that you can’t get a good man down,” Havemann wrote. “Yogi is a good man.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.